OAKLAND — The A’s are counting on a rookie to take down the Tigers in Thursday’s decisive Game 5 of the American League Division Series, with 23-year-old Sonny Gray getting the nod over veteran Bartolo Colon.
Oakland manager Bob Melvin announced the decision on a conference call Wednesday afternoon, less than 24 hours after his club suffered an 8-6 loss in Detroit to force Game 5.
Gray will go up against Detroit right-hander Justin Verlander, who in Game 5 vs. the A’s last year put the Tigers on his back with a complete-game, 11-strikeout effort that sent Detroit to the AL Championship Series. He also pitched seven shutout innings in Game 2 on Saturday.
But Gray did Verlander one better, compiling eight scoreless innings in Oakland’s Game 2 victory. He allowed four hits, with only one leaving the infield, and walked two in the affair, which marked just the 11th start of his big league career.
Oakland’s 2011 first-round Draft pick has a 1.85 ERA over his last seven outings, and his ability to continue such an impressive trend could help the A’s buck a depressing one. The club enters Thursday’s contest 1-11 in potential clinch games since 1990.
Colon, 40, lost to Detroit in Game 1, but followed a three-run first with five scoreless innings. He hasn’t won a game against the Tigers since 2003, going 0-8 in 14 starts for three different teams in that span.
Should the A’s advance to the ALCS, which begins in Boston on Saturday, Colon would likely start Game 1 against the Red Sox.
A day after compiling 16 strikeouts in a Game 1 American League Division Series loss to the Tigers, the A’s rolled out a similar lineup against righty Justin Verlander for Game 2.
The only new face in the lineup for Saturday evening’s contest was Seth Smith at designated hitter. Brandon Moss, who DH’d on Friday, moved to first base in place of Daric Barton.
Melvin said he targeted this change all along, noting Barton’s defensive troubles on Friday did not play into his decision.
“Smitty has a history with Justin Verlander,” said manager Bob Melvin, “and the versatility with Brandon Moss allows us to play him at first.”
Smith is just 2-for-15 in his career against Verlander, but one of those hits is a home run, and he’s also walked six times in 21 total plate appearances vs. the righty for a .381 on-base percentage.
He was part of an A’s lineup that did well in running up Verlander’s pitch count the last time they faced him, forcing him to throw 44 pitches to get through a two-run first inning, 104 in all to finish five on Aug. 28.
Smith hit .286 (4-for-14) in seven games against Detroit this year and is a career .321 hitter vs. the Tigers, with four home runs and nine RBIs in 19 games. He also went 14-for-38 over his final 19 regular-season games.
“He was swinging the bat well,” said Melvin. “He has the most experience of getting at-bats and sitting for a while and still keeping himself ready to get an at-bats, whether it’s once every three or four days or once a week.”
The full lineup, with Sonny Gray scheduled to pitch:
CF Coco Crisp
SS Jed Lowrie
3B Josh Donaldson
1B Brandon Moss
LF Yoenis Cespedes
DH Seth Smith
RF Josh Reddick
C Stephen Vogt
2B Eric Sogard
ALDS Game 1 starting lineup:
CF Coco Crisp: 4-for-14, 4 K vs Max Scherzer
SS Jed Lowrie: 2-for-6, 1 K
3B Josh Donaldson: 1-for-8, 3 K
DH Brandon Moss: 3-for-13, 1 HR, 5 K, 2 BB
LF Yoenis Cespedes: 1-for-4, 1 K, 2 BB
RF Josh Reddick: 4-for-10, 5 K
C Stephen Vogt: 1-for-2
1B Daric Barton: 0-for-4, 3 K
2B Eric Sogard: 3-for-5
Rotation: Bartolo Colon, Sonny Gray, Jarrod Parker, Dan Straily
Bullpen: Grant Balfour, Sean Doolittle, Ryan Cook, Jerry Blevins, Brett Anderson, Dan Otero, Jesse Chavez
Catcher: Derek Norris, Stephen Vogt, Kurt Suzuki
First base: Brandon Moss, Daric Barton
Second base: Alberto Callaspo, Eric Sogard
Shortstop: Jed Lowrie
Third base: Josh Donaldson
Outfielders: Yoenis Cespedes, Chris Young, Coco Crisp, Josh Reddick, Seth Smith